Ryan Serhant knows how to stay positive in a crisis.
The star of the new Bravo series "Sell It Like Serhant" began his real estate career on one of the darkest days of the financial crisis: September 15, 2008. It was the day storied investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy amid the housing market collapse that led the country into a nearly two-year recession.
"In hindsight, it was the absolute best time for me to start," Serhant tells CNBC Make It about his first-ever real estate gig at New York firm Nest Seekers International, where he still works brokering multimillion-dollar deals.
"Brokers were abandoning the business left and right, and I was probably the only agent in my office — maybe the city — with a smile on my face. I was just excited to get started!" he remembers.
Serhant had moved to New York City two years earlier as an aspiring actor before deciding to get his real estate license.
"My last paying gig before starting as a real estate agent that fateful day was as a hand model, holding phones for AT&T," he says. "I took whatever gigs I could when I moved to [New York] to pay rent."
As it turned out, being a struggling actor was not so different from working in the real estate business during the financial crisis. Serhant tells CNBC Make It he made only $9,000 his first year as a real estate agent — less than he'd made the previous year from hand modeling and the odd acting gig.
"I kind of started from ground zero, in a really, really tough market, obviously, where a lot of people were losing their jobs, people couldn't get financing [to close real estate deals]," Serhant said of the period in an interview with Nasdaq in March. "So, all of my initial deals were really, really difficult."
Even though Serhant says he "mentally quit the business once per week" during the roughest stretches, the fact that he had struggled to make ends meet before actually helped him stay positive.
"I was just excited to have an office with a computer and a business card," Serhant jokes.
Serhant hustled to pick up any clients he could, even posting ads for his services on Craigslist. He also took the market collapse as an opportunity to learn new skills that tend to be overlooked in healthier financial markets.
"I learned everything that agents working in a boom market never have to involve themselves in," Serhant says. "I learned how to do loans; I learned the contract process in and out; I learned how to negotiate in dire circumstances; and I learned how to sell when nothing was selling."